The conference semifinals served up their usual doses of unpredictability. No team that hosted the return leg -- thought to provide the slimmest of home-field advantages -- managed to survive. Only one higher seed, D.C. United, prevailed, although in the case of the Black-and-Red, it can be viewed as a case of justice being served, given the storm-induced changes to the schedule United had to go through.
So now the playoffs are down to four teams, and a solid case could be made for each of them. United's young side is maturing before our very eyes. Houston's vast playoff experience, with some talented newcomers like Oscar Boniek García sprinkled in, is coming up big once again in the postseason. Seattle has shaken its playoff voodoo at last, while the L.A. Galaxy are merely the league’s defending champions, with perhaps the most talented roster in the league.
An added wrinkle is that for the first time in a decade, the conference finals will not be a single-game affair, further reducing the advantage that comes with being a higher seed. All told, the conference finals are about as wide open as they could get.
D.C. United vs. Houston Dynamo
United overcame all manner of obstacles to get past the New York Red Bulls 2-1 on aggregate, while Houston dispatched top seed Sporting Kansas City by the same score. The two sides played three times during the regular season, with each team holding serve on its home field. That said, the last time they faced each other was in July, and both teams have undergone significant changes since then. United has become a grittier, more defensive side in the wake of Dwayne De Rosario's knee injury, while Houston’s dalliance with the 4-3-3 has been shelved in favor of manager Dominic Kinnear's preferred 4-4-2.
Key matchup: DCU midfielder Chris Pontius vs. Houston left back Kofi Sarkodie
The heroics of Nick DeLeon notwithstanding, Pontius remains United's most dangerous attacking presence, as witnessed by his 12 goals on the season, and he'll need to be impactful if DCU is to prevail. He’ll likely go up against Sarkodie, who has improved immensely in recent months, and was effective in helping to contain Kansas City attacker Kei Kamara in the previous round. Sarkodie is also a threat going forward, which could be a factor, given that United’s back line has been hit by injury and suspension.
Players to watch: DCU - goalkeeper Joe Willis, midfielder Perry Kitchen, midfielder Nick DeLeon. Houston - midfielder Óscar Boniek García, midfielder Brad Davis, forward Will Bruin.
With usual starting keeper Bill Hamid suspended, United will be forced to turn to Willis. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as Willis filled in quite capably in ten matches this year, and provides a steady, consistent presence. Kitchen tends to sit deep in United's midfield, and given how Brad Davis and Boniek García tend to pinch in, he'll need to be wary of both players and try to limit their influence. DeLeon, fresh off scoring the series winner against New York, is a dynamic performer on the wing opposite Pontius.
García and Davis remain the Dynamo's most creative attacking threats. García is a threat off the dribble as well as with his passing, and is capable of scoring spectacular goals. Davis' set piece deliveries remain a massive part of Houston's attack. Bruin's three goals make him the leading scorer of the playoffs so far, and his size and strength make allow him to be an immense presence in the box.
X factors: DCU forward Dwayne De Rosario; Houston forward Mac Kandji
De Rosario is in a race against time to recover from a left knee sprain, but if he can manage to make it back in time -- even if it's just for the second leg -- his ability to create goals out of nothing would provide a welcome boost to the Black-and-Red. Kandji is blessed with both pace and power, and when he’s on his game he can stretch any defense. His play has been erratic for the entirety of his MLS career, and with Calen Carr doubtful due to an injured hamstring, Kandji may be forced to play from the start.
Outlook: United may be the higher seed, but practically speaking, it enters this round as underdogs. That will suit DCU manager Ben Olsen just fine. His deft handling of his squad in the face of some significant injuries and suspensions has his side feeling confident that it can overcome any obstacle.
That said, many of the matchups in this series favor Houston, especially if United continues to struggle to find available bodies at outside back. The fact that DCU tends to sit back and look for opportunities on the break is smart when De Rosario is unavailable, but this has the unintended consequence of asking fewer defensive questions of Davis and García, who were both forced to track back quite a bit in the previous round against Kansas City. Houston has had difficulty coping with speedy players in the past, but there don’t seem to be enough of those on DCU’s roster to trouble the Dynamo, especially now that usual right back Andy Najar has been suspended for another two games for throwing a ball at the referee in the first leg against New York.
Look for Houston to prevail 3-1.
Seattle Sounders vs. Los Angeles Galaxy
The Sounders tasted playoff victory at last in getting by Real Salt Lake 1-0, with Mario Martínez smashing in an emphatic game winner. The Galaxy got one over on bitter rivals San Jose, blitzing the Quakes for three early goals in the second leg to win 3-2 on aggregate. The regular-season series saw home form prevail, with Seattle taking two of three.
Key matchup: Seattle defender Jeff Parke vs. L.A. forward Robbie Keane
Both players are in peak form. Parke was at the forefront of a defensive effort that kept Real Salt Lake scoreless in the conference semis, including forward Álvaro Saborío. Keane came up huge against San Jose, scoring twice in the second leg and looking especially dangerous on the break. Keane's movement is such that he's adept at finding space between the back and midfield lines, and it will be imperative that Parke, along with fellow center back Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, know of Keane's whereabouts at all times.
Players to watch: Seattle - midfielder Osvaldo Alonso, midfielder Brad Evans, forward Eddie Johnson. L.A. - defender Tommy Meyer, midfielder Mike Magee, midfielder/forward Landon Donovan.
A big reason Seattle's defense was the second-best in MLS this season was down to the work of Alonso in front of the back line, be it winning second balls or shutting down opposition playmakers. Evans is Seattle's Swiss Army knife, a player who can fill in at a number of positions and handle a multitude of jobs with aplomb. Johnson will present L.A. with a very different challenge than the Galaxy faced in the first round, with his combination of strength, speed and finishing ability making him especially hard to stop. He’ll need to break a playoff dry spell that has reached seven games, however.
Landon Donovan said that Meyer “became a man” during the San Jose series, and the Indiana product will need to be at his best again to help contain Seattle's potent front line. For Magee, he continued his penchant for scoring massive playoff goals by potting the eventual series winner against San Jose. If what Donovan said is true about needing a break from competition, the U.S. international sure didn't look like it against the Quakes, and his dynamism on the break is something the Sounders will need to mind.
X factors: Seattle forward Fredy Montero; L.A. goalkeeper Josh Saunders
Like Johnson, Montero has yet to score a playoff goal, with his goalless streak now reaching eight postseason appearances. But his deft chip late in the second leg against RSL set up Martínez's game winner, showing that the Colombian may yet be discovering ways to make an impact, even when he doesn't find the net. As for Saunders, his performances have been highly erratic in recent weeks. One game his shot-stopping is superb, but his decision-making isn't. The next game the opposite is true. To his credit, he played a complete game in the second leg of the San Jose series after allowing a stoppable free kick to sneak by him in the first. L.A. will need the second-leg version to show up.
Outlook: If all of L.A.'s attacking pieces are clicking, it is almost impossible to stop. Keane especially looks to be in imperious form, as does Donovan. Then there's Magee, who continues to pop up for vital postseason goals. And one can't forget David Beckham, whose distribution over long range still has to be respected.
That said, the Galaxy will face a Seattle team that is much tougher defensively, has a superior goalkeeper in Michael Gspurning and is less susceptible to counterattacking opportunities than conference semifinal opponents San Jose. Seattle also has a more varied attack. Although the likely absence of Mauro Rosales for the first leg means the Sounders' offense won't be at their most potent, both Montero and Johnson have done plenty to trouble the L.A. defense in the past. Lastly, for perhaps the first time in its MLS postseason history, Seattle will be playing with zero pressure after advancing past the conference semifinal stage for the first time ever.
If there's one place Seattle looks vulnerable, it's on the flanks, especially if left back Marc Burch is disciplined by the league for directing a homophobic slur at RSL's Will Johnson. Both Sean Franklin and Todd Dunivant are capable of getting forward, so that will be an area to watch.
All told, L.A. looks to have regained the hunger that accompanied it to last year's MLS Cup title, and with its defense jelling at the right time, look for the Galaxy to come out on top 3-2.